History | Culture | Ancestry
There are always parts of a family tree that you feel more drawn to than others. Quite often there isn’t really a rational explanation for this as all our ancestors ‘own’ an equal part of our ancestry, whether they were good or bad, or whether or not we can relate to them. I suspect perhaps that we sub-consciously become attracted to parts of the tree that we feel more accurately represent how we would like to be perceived or amplify certain characteristics that reflect favourably on us as individuals.
With that in mind, I will draw your attention to the McLarty’s of Craignish, a line of my family tree which is given to me by my grandmother Euphemia McLarty. It is a part of the family that has always been the object of fascination for me, more so than most other areas of my family research. This has been reinforced by the fact that more than one part of my family originates from Craignish and I feel I can hardly turn a stone or look up a family in that area without finding a connection to my own folk.
Craignish itself is a beautiful and largely undisturbed part of Scotland situated far from the main road arteries that cross Argyll. It is a remote and isolated rural community that is not particularly well known. JRR Tolkien was supposedly a visitor to Craignish, and it is said that he was very influenced by the landscape of the area. As is so often the case in Scotland the quiet facade belies an eventful past. Craignish was once at the very heart of the ancient kingdom of Dal Riada, which had its capital at nearby Dunadd in the Kilmartin Glen. Around 6oo AD, Dal Riada was the pre-eminent political and military power in Western Scotland and Northern Ireland and the abundance of Dùns (hill forts) in the area give a strong indication of how significant Craignish was in the past.
This significance survives in local folklore, which tells of an ancient battle between the Scots and Norse at Barbreck, resulting in the death of a Viking Prince named Olaf. The folk story has a solid foundation in historical fact, as Irish annals from over 1000 years ago mention that a Danish prince named Olaf Tryggvesson was ‘defeated in dalriada’ in the year 986 AD.
The story goes that the Norse Army first engaged the Scots at a place called Druim Righ, meaning the ‘Ridge of the King’, the Scots then retreated a few hundred metres up the field to Sluggan. At this point the Scots rallied, received a body of reinforcements before driving the Norsemen back to Druim Righ, where Olaf was killed. According to legend, Olaf was slain in single combat with the Scottish king, who at this time would have been Kenneth III. A burial cist at a place called Dùnan Amhlaidh (Olaf’s mound) marks the supposed burial site of Prince Olaf. The ashes contained in the tomb were scattered some time before 1795 when the workmen who discovered the burial urn smashed it in an attempt to find buried treasure. The area around the battlefield is rich in other archaeological sites including many ancient burial mounds, cists and standing stones. How some of these sites may have related to the battle may never be known, as a number were damaged in the subsequent agricultural activity that took place in the area. As is often the case, most of these archaeological sites probably pre-date the battle, but appropriated a new meaning in local folklore over the thousands of years that they have existed. Some relatively newer additions to the estate, such as the curious ‘Watchman’s Stone’, also provide a fascinating insight into local tradition.
There is one other encounter between the Scots and Norse that exists in the folklore of Craignish. At a field on the western edge of the Craignish peninsula there are two huge circular cairns, 12 metres in diameter. According to tradition this was the location of a battle between the MacDougalls and Norsemen and the battle was supposedly so bloody that the field was covered with the heads of the defeated Norsemen. This small part of Craignish subsequently became known as Dail nan Ceann, or Field of the Heads, with the cairns apparently being the burial place of the MacDougall warriors.
As an aside, I believe it is important to recognise that much of this folklore would not have survived had it not have been for Lord Archibald Campbell, the son of the Duke of Argyll. In 1889, Lord Campbell had become alarmed at the rapid disappearance of local traditions due to depopulation and the decline of Gaelic. Determined to preserve this important local culture, he collected and published anecdotes and stories associated with the folklore of Craignish in a book titled Craignish Tales. One such story speaks of MacLabhartaich na h-Airde, or McLarty of Aird, and his ingenious defence of Craignish from incoming invaders from Islay. It’s a classic story of the Gaelic world and speaks volumes about the rich oral culture that once existed not only in Craignish, but across all of the Western Highlands and Isles.
In more recent centuries, the area came under the control of Clan Campbell. In the Civil Wars of the 1640’s, the Campbell residence of Craignish Castle withstood a siege from Alasdair MacColla MacDhòmhnaill, who would go on to earn his nickname as ‘the devastator’ by burning Inveraray to the ground and decimating the Campbells at the Battle of Inverlochy. In 1685, the Marquis of Athol landed in Craignish at a bay called Port nan Athlaich to carry out the Government order to lay waste to the Campbell lands in Argyll. His forces were beaten back and it is said his men drowned in the bay. The Campbells of Craignish subsequently built the Georgian mansion of Barbreck House, completed for Major General John Campbell in 1789.
It is at this time that my McLartys enter the historical record. The story begins with Alexander McLarty, who was probably born some time around 1730. Little else is known about him other than he is listed on his son’s marriage record of 1790 as ‘Alexr McLarty in Baravullin’. 224 years later there is still a working farm at Baravullin, although the area is now considerably depopulated. Baravullin is one of many farms in this area with traceable and recorded connections to the McLarty’s and associated families over many centuries. Unfortunately, I really have no other information about Alexander McLarty’s life, who he married, how many children he had or the date of his death.
I do know however that he did have at least one son, my 4x Great Grandfather Donald McLarty, who was born around 1760 and married Mary Sinclair in 1790. Tax records from 1797 show him living at Lergychoniemore, as do birth records from 1807 and 1812. When his son James married in 1837, it shows Donald McLarty as still living at Lergychoniemore. From 1837 the facts surrounding his life become more uncertain. A Donald McLarty, son of Alexander, is listed as having died at Lergychonie in 1856 at the age of 83 and while it remains a strong possibility that it is the same Donald, I cannot find any corroborating evidence to confirm the identity.
The statistical accounts provide an fascinating glimpse into the life of the people of Craignish around this time. The accounts were compiled by Church of Scotland ministers between 1791 and 1845 and detail the everyday life, language, religion, economy and geography of the parish. The 1791-1799 account compiled by Rev. Lachlan McLachlan describes Craignish as a community that only spoke Gaelic, that the people were of “good health”, lived a “simple, frugal life” and were “simple in their mode of dress and living”. Similarly, they are described as “discreet in their conversation, hospitable” and “addicted to no vice in a remarkable degree”. McLachlan also describes the people as eating mostly potatoes and fish, as beef was an expensive luxury that most could not afford. It is clear that the people of Craignish had regular trading links with Ireland and the usage of carts is described as a new introduction to the area in the 1790s, but they were used only in limited numbers on account of the “neglected” condition of the roads.
The 1843 account compiled by Rev. Archibald Francis Stewart describes Craignish as much the same as it was in the previous account. It was noted however that the roads had been greatly improved, and that the opening of the Crinan Canal allowed steamers to travel quickly from Glasgow and Greenock to visit Craignish. Coal imports were particularly sought after due to the poor nature of the peat in the area. Exports taken away by these steamers include 3,000 sheep and 1,000 black cattle every year. The population is still described as Gaelic speaking in 1843, but that the language “had lost ground during the last 40 years”, that “English is now commonly understood” and that some Gaelic words had become “obsolete” as “English vocables are often introduced by the natives into their conversation.”
Next in my line is Donald McLarty’s son, my 3x Great Grandfather Alexander McLarty. Alexander was born at Lergychoniemore in 1796 and records show him as living at Barbreckbeg in 1822, Barbreck Cottages on the estate of Barbreck House in 1841 and at Baranoil from 1861 until his death 2 years later. He was a ploughman and the 1861 census indicates that he was a farmer of 60 acres. Alexander McLarty, like his father, married a Sinclair and the record below shows that his wife Margaret Sinclair was a servant to Colin Campbell of Kintraw at the time of their marriage in 1822.
My 2x Great Grandfather Archibald McLarty was the last of his line to be born in Craignish. He was born at Baravullin in 1840 at a time when the effects of the industrial revolution were starting to draw increasing numbers of highlanders away from their homeland. Between 1841 and 1851 the family had moved to Baranoil and by 1861 Archie was working as a ploughman with his father. When his father died in 1863 he seems to have inherited the farm and continued to work the fields of Baranoil until he moved to Lerigoligan in 1880 as a farmer of 100 acres, 20 of which were arable. This was the same year that he married his first cousin, Ann McIntyre, whose mother Catherine McLarty was Archibald’s aunt. In 1895 he continued to live at Lerigoligan as a tenent of James Archibald Campbell of Barbreck, who set McLarty’s annual rent at a princely £55.
The marriage between Ann McIntyre and Archibald McLarty produced at least one child who lived to adulthood, but Ann McIntyre died in 1897 at the age of 53. Between 1897 and 1899 Archibald McLarty left Craignish for Gallanach, near Oban. In March 1899 he married my Great-Great Grandmother Mary McLean in front of the witnesses Betsy McLullich and John McKinnon, which the 1901 census reveals to be their neighbours from Gallanachbeg. At the time of their marriage, Archibald was a 58 year old widow with a 15 year old son, while Mary McLean was 26 with a 2 year old illegitimate son whose name of Neil MacPherson McLean could be a reference of the identity of the father.
Archibald McLarty and Mary McLean’s first son together was born at Port-nan-Cuilc cottage in June 1899. Almost exactly three years later, in June 1902, Mary gave birth to Sarah Ann McLarty and my Great Grandfather Donald McLarty at Gallanachmore Cottage.
A family story relates that my Great Grandfather Donald McLarty went to school on the island of Kerrera. This would be logical as the ferry to Kerrera and the school house at Balliemore were just a few hundred metres from where Donald McLarty lived, much closer than travelling by road to Oban. Again, like Craignish, Gallanach has had an eventful history given its remote location. The cottage at Gallanachmore faces out across the water to Kerrera and a place called Dail Righ, or ‘field of the King’. It is here that King Alexander II died in 1249 while mustering his forces to reconquer the Hebrides from the Norwegians. In 1263 the bays along the coast sheltered the 120 longships under the command of King Haakon of Norway before he sailed on to eventual defeat against the Scots at the Battle of Largs.
In more recent times the Sound of Kerrera was home to a naval minefield during the Second World War. Local tradition states that one night during the war, an officer of the Royal Navy took a young lady to the mine control tower to show her the controls. What happens next is a matter of conjecture, but whatever happened inside the control tower, the entire minefield was accidentally detonated. During the Cold War, Gallanach took on global significance as the first Trans-Atlantic cable was laid between Gallanach Bay and Newfoundland in Canada in 1956. This cable was of vital importance, as it carried the hot line between the presidents of the USA and USSR.
Sometime between 1902 and 1905 the McLartys moved from Gallanachmore to Greenock. The 1911 census shows them as living at 26 West Burn Street in Greenock and interestingly also shows that Archie McLarty and his wife Mary McLean never taught my Great Grandfather their native language of Gaelic. The absence of ‘G & E’ next to Donald McLarty’s name in the census record is more profound that merely an absence of ink on a piece of paper, it marks the end of centuries of tradition under the crushing pressure of anglicisation. This was a common occurrence around this period and many parents felt that there was little point in passing on their language. Gaelic was portrayed as parochial and unrefined, the language of a primitive and unsophisticated past. English was seen as progressive, modern and the accepted language of empire and state institutions. English also had complete dominance in education as the 1872 Education Act expressively forbid the use of Gaelic within the education system. Children caught speaking the language following the act were physically beaten and it wasn’t until 1918 that Gaelic reentered the education system. By 1918 however it was too late, the legislation of 1872 along with depopulation, the effects of World War One and institutional discrimination against Gaelic had decimated the number of speakers. In 1881 there were 231,000 people in Scotland who spoke only Gaelic, by 1911 there was a mere 8,400. Archie McLarty would die at Laird Street in Greenock in 1921, and his wife Mary McLean died shortly afterwards in 1925. When they died the Gaelic language of our family died with them.
In 1923, my Great Grandfather Donald McLarty married my Great Grandmother Isabella Smith Petrie at 1 Wallace Place, the Municipal Building, in Greenock. In his marriage certificate Donald is listed as an ‘Aerated Water Salesman’ for AG Barr, the makers of what would become Scotland’s national drink, Iron Bru. Family tradition states that he became the longest serving member of AG Barr. Another staff member apparently disputed this claim but there were no papers to confirm his story and Donald continued to say that he was the longest serving employee with over 50 years of service. When Donald started with the company he was delivering the drinks with a horse and cart, and by the time he had retired the mass produced drinks were being sent all over the world. On retiring, Donald was visited by none other than Mr Barr himself, who presented him with a gold watch and told him that he had never had such a hard working employee. He was offered a holiday to anywhere he wanted in thanks for his service and Donald naturally chose Oban. You can only wonder if he managed to visit his birthplace at Gallanachmore while he was there. Donald lived at Hill Street and then Clydeview Road in Greenock, both of these streets have since been demolished and are now unrecognisable. He passed away in 1989.
My Grandmother Euphemia Graham Petrie McLarty was the oldest of the three children of Donald McLarty and Isabella Petrie. Isabella Petrie’s own mother was Euphemia Graham, who had three children named Euphemia Graham Petrie in 1904, 1918 and 1921. At least two of these babies did not survive infancy and it appears that my Grandmother, born just two years after the third Euphemia Graham Petrie was named Euphemia Graham Petrie McLarty in honor of these children.
My Gran was born at 1 John street in Gourock in 1923, but it remains a mystery as to why she was born there. Our family have no noticeable family link to Gourock, and the family is known to have been living at Hill Street in Greenock around this time. Further compounding the mystery is the fact that whatever building existed at 1 John Street no longer exists, it has long been demolished and small modern shops have replaced the site. Historic maps of the area don’t seem to shed any further light on the mystery either. Gran was always quick to remind people however that she was “a Gourockian” as a result, just to make sure people were aware of that wee point of difference. She had two siblings, Archie McLarty who died around 1954 at the age of 26 from tuberculosis, leaving behind a wife and four children, and also Sarah ‘Nancy’ McLarty who married Terence Macer, a seaman from Manchester.
The McLarty family has changed as society has changed. The family had existed in a largely unaltered condition for many centuries, then in just one or two generations the way of life changed dramatically from Gaelic speaking tenant farmers, to English speaking businessmen. The pace of change is incredible, and we can see that change continuing from my Great-Grandfather’s generation to my own. Despite this, I hope it is a constant that the McLartys, the people of Craignish and the timeless history of that parish are never forgotten.